Today's post is the seventh in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist professors of mission will contribute to a re-examination of this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Dr. Benjamin L. Hartley, Associate Professor of Christian Mission and Director of United Methodist Studies at Palmer Theological Seminary. Dr. Hartley is commenting on the fourth section of the document, "Mission: Reform." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.
In paragraphs 18-24 Grace upon Grace continues to recount “our missional heritage” by drawing attention to previous Methodist reform movements which attacked the problems of slavery, unjust labor practices, alcohol abuse, poverty, and economic injustice. A very similar litany of past Methodist involvement in addressing these problems could certainly still be given today – twenty-five years after the writing of Grace upon Grace. It may be helpful, however, to reflect a bit about how one might tell this nineteenth century story of mission as social reform differently today. Our perspective on historical events is always shifting.
I was struck first by the way Methodism’s holistic ministry of biblical justice and evangelism was described in paragraph 18: “The revival movement which began with an
emphasis on personal regeneration extended into social reform.” Historically, this description certainly suggests a shift in emphasis. But does it downplay the extent to which social reform was integral to Methodist mission from the start? Wesley’s anti-slavery writings and his “Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions” are just two examples to which one may point to highlight such holism. Theologically, I am also critical of portraying the 19th century Methodist reform efforts as mere “extensions” as if they were a kind of second step beyond a focus on personal
regeneration. For most nineteenth century Methodists mission as social reform was seen as part and parcel of their view of sanctification. (Grace upon Grace does a nice job of highlighting the importance of this doctrine in paragraphs 9 and 43.) Frances Willard, John R. Mott, E. Stanley Jones and many unsung heroes in the anti-slavery and organized labor movements were driven to do their work at least in part because of their life-transforming experiences of sanctifying grace. They
sought to bring into reality an evangelical synergism of what E. Stanley Jones called “Christlikeness universalized.”
It is important today to tell these stories of mission as reform in such a way that they do not get reduced to mere do-gooder activism or as Methodism’s “extension” beyond personal regeneration, or as an adoption of Social Gospel ideas which were imported to Methodism from other theological movements. It was frequently these things as well, but for many 19th century Methodists, their work in mission as social reform was powered by a profound conviction about holiness. God’s sanctifying grace propelled them to the streets as well as to the far side of the sea. This is easy to forget at a time when teaching about holiness is at best unfashionable in many UMC congregations in North America. We will need to find new language to express this hallmark of the Methodist movement in such a way that it captures our imaginations, but it ought not be given up. A few weeks ago I was asked to attend a meeting of the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium by the UMC’s Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Relationships. This gathering of about a dozen
denominational leaders who identify with the Wesleyan holiness tradition was a reminder to me of what many United Methodists could gain from some ecumenical relationship-building at a local level. Our closest Wesleyan cousins share in our history of social reform and in our teaching about sanctification.
When we are telling these stories of mission as reform, it is also important to point out that they are ongoing stories. Paragraphs 18-23 in Grace upon Grace are a reminder that the scourge of human slavery is not only a historical victory for Methodists but remains a challenge for the contemporary church. The problem of human trafficking is gaining a great deal of traction among Christians in North America at the moment. This is surely a hopeful sign. I fear, however, that other related problems are being somewhat ignored in the face of this important movement to end human trafficking today.
The problems of poverty and food insecurity in the U.S. and around the world are as significant now just as they were when Wesley penned his essay, “Thoughts on the Scarcity of Provisions,” in 1773. New challenges of climate change, access to clean water, sanitation, and future food price increases require continued commitment of Methodists around the world for years to come. We also need to celebrate and be thankful for the success stories of poverty reduction in many countries throughout the
world. While much work remains to be done I think it is important that Christians acknowledge the good news of reduced poverty rates in many countries. There are personal stories behind these positive statistics. I recently found the Bread for the World 2013 Hunger Report to be rather encouraging reading in this regard.
Finally, Grace upon Grace describes “social transformation” in the early 20th century as a “new frontier in mission.” Methodists like to speak of new frontiers even when they are not really new. Still, the size of the task, the complexity of the problem, and the energy and hopefulness to address it doubtless made Methodist workers in social reform feel like they were on a new frontier to which God had called them. When we tell the old story of Methodists’ mission as social reform we also must find new ways of telling that story so that it too feels like a new frontier of self-understanding.